The agony of the living

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

Unable to come to terms with the loss of relatives and property, many survivors of the super-cyclone that hit Orissa in 1999 continue to suffer from psychological trauma and suicidal impulses.

in Ersama

IT is five years since a super-cyclone ripped apart coastal Orissa. But no sign of the catastrophic impact of that event is externally visible in Ersama block in Jagatsinghpur district, which now presents a picture of tranquillity and beauty. Lush green paddy fields, prawn culture ponds, patches of casuarina plantations and hamlets add to the lovely setting. But beneath it all, thousands of cyclone survivors are living lives of penury, uncertainty and psychological distress.

With the authorities focussing only on brick and mortar construction, psychosocial rehabilitation of the survivors has taken a back seat. The result is that as many as 59 people have committed suicide during the past five years in Ersama block alone. The victims belong to the 14-35 age group, and were mostly women and girls. The disturbing fact came to light when the Bangalore-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) and Sneha Abhiyan, an initiative of ActionAid, conducted recently a survey for the Orissa State Disaster Mitigation Authority (OSDMA) on the mental health problems in Ersama.

Ersama was the ground zero of the super-cyclone that hit the State on October 29, 1999, washing away lakhs of houses and leaving thousands of people dead in as many as 12 coastal districts (Frontline, November 26, 1999). Of the 9,000-odd lives that were lost, Ersama block accounted for more than 8,000.

In fact, the number of cyclone survivors who committed suicide could be higher. The NIMHANS-ActionAid survey covered only 11 of the total 25 gram panchayats in Ersama block - precisely, 15,004 respondents from 2,615 households in 72 villages of the block - and hence there were no data available on the mental health of the survivors in the remaining 14 gram panchayats.

The survey showed that a staggering 11 per cent of the respondents expressed the wish to die. Those who committed suicide were primarily victims of post-traumatic stress disorders such as restlessness, flashbacks and sleep disturbances. Some others ended their lives because they were plagued by the guilt that they survived when their loved ones were washed away by the huge sea waves that accompanied the storm.

The study found that of the total respondents, 2,048 were mentally ill. The impact of the disaster was significantly higher among widows, illiterates and those who suffered multiple losses such as the loss of kin, livelihood, property and livestock.

"It is not only the disaster that triggered the suicides, but the subsequent life events," said Dr. K. Sekar, a psychiatrist working with NIMHANS. The suicide rate in Ersama was four times that in a normal community, he said.

According to Dr. Sekar, rehabilitation and reconstruction alone will not help. The psychosocial problems facing the cyclone survivors have to be addressed with equal zeal. Mental health camps could be organised jointly by NIMHANS and ActionAid at different places in Ersama if the State government provided necessary support and arranged to send a team of psychiatrists from the SCB Medical College and Hospital in Cuttack, he suggested.

THE tales of sorrow in Ersama have varied shades. In Noliasahi hamlet in Gadakujang gram panchayat, 57-year-old Bhabi Behera attempted suicide twice by hanging herself from a tree but her neighbours saved her both times. She was not able to cope with the loss of her house and belongings in the cyclone. A voluntary organisation is now helping her to recover from stress.

But no one was able to save 42-year-old cyclone widow Sandhya and her 16-year-old daughter Kuni in Sarabapata village. Sandhya had lost her husband and two daughters in the cyclone. She and Kuni failed to cope with the losses and were depressed despite being allotted a dwelling unit by a voluntary organisation. Kuni hanged herself to death last year after a quarrel with her mother, and Sandhya ended her life a few months ago by setting herself on fire.

The loss of her parents and a life full of misery were the possible factors that turned Laxmi Mandal of Ajgarbedi village mentally ill a few months ago. Laxmi once tried to bury one of her children near her hut, but the child was saved by her neighbour Sukanta Sahu. The mother of four is now undergoing treatment at the SCB Medical College and Hospital in Cuttack.

Laxmi's family is landless and has no source of income. Her husband Manoranjan Mandal is not able to go to work because he has to take care of the children and also see that Laxmi does not cause any harm to herself or the children. Of the four children, three were born after the cyclone.

The family has not been allotted a house under the Indira Awas Yojna (IAY) because it does not possess a below poverty line (BPL) card. With no food at home, the family approached the local sarpanch for help but in vain.

Life has been the hardest for women who lost their husbands to the cyclone. Many young widows remarried after the cyclone as they were beseeched by suitors lured by the compensation they received in lieu of the death of their near and dear. Each death fetched Rs.75,000. But many of the men who married the women blew the money, and deserted them.

Some young widows, however, seem to have learnt from the mistakes of others. Saraswati Mandal of Khuranta village spurned all offers of remarriage and instead decided to parent Lipika, her eight-year-old daughter, alone. "I will not marry to suffer like other widows," she said. Renubala Mandal, another cyclone widow, is bringing up her two daughters single-handedly.

Many families that survived the cyclone remain homeless. The State government had obtained the Centre's approval for the construction of eight lakh IAY houses after the super-cyclone. However, the administration has not been able to cover the homeless families even in Ersama.

"There have been serious irregularities in the allotment of IAY houses. While a large number of poor families have not been allotted houses under the scheme for want of BPL cards, many affluent families have got these houses by managing to secure such cards," said members of Jana Kalyan Parishad, a voluntary organisation run by a group of cyclone survivors in Kunjakothi gram panchayat. The State government has ordered an inquiry into several such cases of irregularity.

Lack of supervision by the authorities has resulted in the non-completion of thousands of IAY houses in Ersama block. Many families have spent the money allotted for the house construction for purposes such as a daughter's marriage or buying bullocks. As a result, almost every village in Ersama has half-built IAY houses.

The less said about the public distribution system (PDS) in Ersama the better. The only commodity available at the PDS outlets here is kerosene. The quantity of rations also varies from village to village. The authorities have also failed to bring all the vulnerable villages under the Integrated Child Development Scheme.

While many multi-purpose cyclone shelters have been constructed close to the block headquarters, such shelters are not visible in several vulnerable pockets. Lack of proper roads have made the transporting of building materials to far-flung villages a problem. Electricity connection is yet to be restored in 30-odd villages in Ersama block.

The authorities have done little to help the survivors overcome the psychological trauma and rebuild their lives. Hundreds of voluntary organisations had flocked to Ersama after the disaster, but only a few continued working in the block.

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